Make Apps Stand Out in Search with App Linking

You’ve focused your energy on optimizing your website to get traffic from search engines. You’ve done this with a great site structure and architecture, superb crawlability, and — of course — top notch content. More recently, you’ve been working mad hours to ensure your site shines on mobile. Perhaps you’re already mobile-friendly and are seeing the mobile-friendly label for your site in the search results. But now your company is going all in on apps. And of course, you as the search person are tasked to you what you do best: help drive app installs, engagement, and re-engagement from search.

At first, you may ask yourself: how do I apply my SEO chops to apps? How can I as the web search person help drive app installs through search? Isn’t the app world all about app developer? And your app developer may be thinking “how can the web search folks help me”? Could it be there is a place where these worlds meet? There is, and it’s called App Linking!

App Linking for App Content Discovery

When you think about finding apps on the web, you think about the pure app discovery by searching for an app name or maybe an app category. However, a much more natural and common way for people to search is for content. And of course that content can live inside an app. But in contrast to websites – which generally are easily accessible, crawlable, and indexable for people to search and find, apps appear to the search engines as walled gardens that hide the rich content that lives inside them from searchers. And when it comes to the actions and tasks that an app can perform on that content, it becomes even harder: as it turns out the current app use model is far from perfect.

Today’s App Search Model

If you think about it, there’s probably a provider (an application or web site) for almost anything you want to do, be it on your phone, your tablet, or desktop PC. However, finding apps with the content you are looking for and the ability to fulfill the task you are trying to accomplish is often a process of trial and error. It requires trying individual apps and if there are multiple apps that do the same thing, it’s hard to know which app to use in the first place unless it’s one of the apps you use every day. So, wouldn’t it be awesome if someone could help inform the user’s choice?

A More Efficient Model

At Bing we believe there is a better way for searchers to find and interact with apps. A better way to engage with the content that lives inside of them, and the actions that they can take on it. One that better fits how people actually search and that helps them get things done more quickly. We also believe this to be a model that unlocks tremendous opportunity for app publishers — as many more of you will be able to compete in crowded categories where usually a handful of category leaders dominate.

A more efficient search model for apps

To power this more efficient use model, Bing is expanding its Actions Intelligence to Bing and Bing-powered search (including Cortana) and building up a massive index of apps and app actions. And we are making it easy for you to participate in this new model, as you can use standardized markup on your website to help establish the link between your content and your app, as well as between your content entities and the actions your apps can perform on them.

To do this, Bing is leveraging two open standards and we want you to get ready to use them early on:

  1. App Links and its simple markup to allow users to open your content with your apps straight from our web results and experience it in the immersive device experience instead of in the browser, and
  2. and its action vocabulary to help users discover your app by the actions that your app can perform on the content they are searching for

Let’s take a look at both.

App Links Markup for Deep Linking

Popularized by Facebook, App Links is an open standard for deep-linking into apps. It takes the well-known concept of the URL to create a relationship with a corresponding URI that points to the same content or activity inside an app.

Connecting web and app

To establish this relationship between the web URL and the app URI all you need is to markup the published web page with a set of simple <meta> tags in the <head> of your web page’s HTML. The format for these meta tags is:

<meta property="al:(platform):(property name)" content=(property value)"  />

So to map the example web address to a Contoso app which responds to the URI contoso://doc on for example iOS, you would add the following markup to the <head> section of your web page:

<meta property="al:ios:url" content="contoso://docs"  /> 
<meta property="al:ios:app_store_id" content="123456789" /> 
<meta property="al:ios:app_name" content="Contoso App" />

The following image offers a more elaborate example for a hypothetical web page that offers a player on the web as well as on Windows 10, iOS, and Android:

HMTL with Applinks Markup

So now we have a regular URL that can be easily published, shared, and linked-to from the web, but when we crawl and index the web URL we not only find out about the content on the page, we also index this “web-address-to-app-address” relationship. As a result, we can show not just the web URL but also corresponding app deep link in our results.

This is great for users, because they can discover new apps and consume content within the immersive app experience which in most cases has access to much richer device capabilities than the web page in the browser. This is also great for app publishers, since the apps they publish now can be discovered not just for search by app name or app category, but also for terms that map to the content and entities they serve, which helps drive installs, engagement, and re-engagement.

App Links Markup Tester

To help you with testing and deploying this type of markup, we’ve added a new tool to our public webmaster tools area called Applinks Markup Tester.  This tool shows you exactly how we extract the App Links data from your page and performs some lightweight validation to help you get started:


Applinks Markup Tester in Bing to Power App Actions

Establishing a link between apps and your content is not where it stops. More likely than not, searchers are trying to perform an action, complete a task using your app. So how can we establish the relationship between the content (entity), the task (action), and the provider (app) that can complete the task? The Bing intelligence platform is already pretty good at inferring some of this information based on its understanding of your site, but as always, being explicit about these things from the publisher side gives you an edge. Your tool of choice in this case:

What is

You’ve likely already heard of and may already be using it to markup your webpages today. However, if you are unfamiliar with, it is a standard way for websites to markup webpages with structured data. It’s supported and furthered by the major search engines, including Bing, Google, Yahoo! and Yandex. was originally focused on describing entities: people, places, things. However in 2014 announced the Actions vocabulary — as we found that describing static entities simply wasn’t enough. And it’s the Actions vocabulary that you can use to not just describe the entity at a given web address, but also the actions that can be performed on it and the app or service that can perform the action.

An Example Scenario

Imagine the scenario where the user’s intent is to listen to an audiobook through their mobile phone during their drive home. The book (= the entity) is “Coraline” by the author Neil Gaiman. The action is “Listen”.

So to be able to rank an app URL for this query we would look for:

  • The entity on the page
  • The potential action that can be performed on this entity
  • The app that can perform the potential action

You can use microdata to apply the actions vocabulary, but here’s what this would look like on your page expressed as in JSON/LD: expressed as JSON/LD with action vocabulary

Expressing the relationship between entity, action, and your app using is a bit more involved than App Links markup, but it is extremely powerful in that it allows your web page as well as app to rank a whole new range of entity action-oriented queries. Naturally, your app developer needs to do also do some work to open the app with in the right location, and this work is usually specific to the platform or device. I dedicated a section of my App Discovery talk at Build 2015 to this very topic. The talk was geared towards enabling app deep linking and app actions on Windows 10 and Cortana. However, the website has detailed instructions on the navigation protocol on iOS and Android as well and Bing is creating an app index that covers all of these platforms.

The Time to Start with App Linking & App Actions is Now

Now that we’ve seen how to apply app linking and app actions using markup, you may wonder when it is a good time to start to do this for you site. Well, we’ve already started analyzing the web specifically for App Links and actions markup to support the build up a massive index of apps and app actions, so the time start using app linking and actions and get an edge is now.

We’re also already in the process of bringing this apps and actions intelligence to Bing and Bing-powered search results including Cortana and Windows 10 and we will have more to share later. In fact, look for an upcoming post on how we will start applying this to our results soon.

Best (this time from London!)

Vincent Wehren – Product Lead Webmaster & Publisher Experiences